Jung Chang:Persecution, Mao, and History

Historians in the News

Nigel Farndale, in the Sunday Telegraph (5-22-05):

Among the Chinese artefacts in Jung Chang's Notting Hill drawing-room there is a large terracotta horse and a 19th-century painting of "big noses" - as she was taught to call foreigners - kow-towing to an emperor in the Forbidden City. "They are to remind me of what he destroyed," the 53-year-old author says in her slightly guttural, Chinese-accented English.

The "he" referred to is Mao Tse-Tung, the subject of an 800-page biography Chang has spent the past 10 years researching and writing with her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday. It occurs to me that her waist-length mane of black hair might also be a reminder of, or rather reaction to, Mao: when Chang joined the Red Guard at 14 she was forced to chop off her plaits because long hair was considered bourgeois. "No, no," she says with a tight smile. "I just like long hair, and so does my husband."

She certainly has a brisk, no-nonsense way about her, this Jung Chang. And although she deploys an infectious giggle from time to time, she can come across as a little humourless and literal-minded, too. Her emotional guard is permanently up, one suspects, and this is completely understandable. The first half of her life was hard, marked by distrust and fear. Her parents were committed Communists who were, nevertheless, denounced as class traitors during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was paraded through the streets with a derogatory placard around her neck. Her father was tortured and sent to a labour camp - where he went insane and died in 1975. Chang herself was exiled to the foothills of the Himalayas, where she worked first as a peasant in the fields and then as a steelworker in a factory before being "rehabilitated" and, unusually, allowed to study abroad.

So it was that, in 1978, she came to Britain to read linguistics for a doctorate at York University - and decided to stay on in self-imposed exile. After a visit from her mother 10 years later, she wrote a family memoir that was to change not only her life but also, arguably, the way China was perceived by the outside world. Wild Swans became the biggest-selling non-fiction paperback in publishing history - 10 million copies were sold and it was translated into 30 languages. When I ask her if she still has to pinch herself about the success of that book she gives a bluntly self-confident answer: "No. I can believe it."

Wild Swans is still banned in China; did this make it difficult for her to research her new book? "Yes and no. There was a top secret edict about me issued to Mao's inner circle in 1994. And some people were worried and declined to be interviewed. But most were not put off and they talked to us. ...

And is writing Mao her revenge?"I wouldn't say so. Revenge implies something personal. I wanted to write a biography that was fair and objective. Mao did not just do harm to me and my family, he did it to the whole of Chinese society."...

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